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Reporting Recipe: How to Investigate Student Debt at Your College

Here are five stories you can do using ProPublica’s interactive database, Debt by Degrees. Each one comes complete with easy-to-follow, step-by-step instructions.

Student debt has tripled over the past decade to $1.2 trillion, with more than a quarter of former students struggling to make payments. But until a few weeks ago, there was very little public data on how well students fare at individual schools.

That changed in September after the government publicly released a massive trove of data on student debt and ProPublica published Debt by Degrees, an interactive database that allows anyone to look up over 7,000 schools and see how well low-income students do at each school.

Using our database, we’ve written about how some wealthy colleges leave poor students with big debts and how many Catholic universities do too.

So how can you report on student debt at your school? Here are five story ideas to help jumpstart your own investigation:

1. As Tuition at Your School Goes Up, Poor Students May Be Left Behind

Colleges are not required to report data on the income distribution of their student body.

However, schools are required to report the percentage of their students that receive Pell grants — students from families that typically make less than $30,000 a year. This figure is widely accepted by researchers and academics as a proxy for determining which students are low-income.

The recently released government data provides new detail on how low-income students (Pell recipients) do compared to their wealthier peers. Using Debtby Degrees, you can look up all of the data on low-income students, which is highlighted in our database with orange text.

How to report on this:

Look up what percentage of students receive Pell Grants at your school.

Some schools are better at enrolling low-income students than others. For example, only 11.3 percent of Tufts’ student body receive Pell grants. Tufts’ percentage is low compared to other research universities, as they are ranked 98th out of 101 schools.

  • Go talk to students and the admissions office. Don’t stop at the data — find students who are Pell recipients and ask them about their college experience. Then talk to the admissions office. Does your school actively recruit low-income students? Is your school “need blind,” meaning do they accept students regardless of their socioeconomic background? What extra resources does your school have for low-income students?
  • Report on the discount that your school gives to its poorest students. Schools are required to publicly report how much students actually pay on average after grants and scholarship aid. In Debt by Degrees, the figure is broken down by income group, enabling you to compare how much the poorest students pay on average to the wealthiest. We show the discount for the poorest students and using the data, you can also compute the discount for the wealthiest students. Or see how your school’s discount for low-income students ranks against similar schools.
  • Compare the graduation rate of low-income students to the rest of the student body. For years, this data was only publicly available if requested by a prospective or current student at a school. But recently, the nonprofit Education Trust collected the graduation rates of Pell recipients at over 1,000 schools, which are now available in our interactive database. At Hofstra University, for example, students who receive Pell grants graduate at a much lower rate (53 percent) than the rest of the school (62.1 percent). At your school, are low-income students graduating at a lower or higher rate than their peers? Are there resources at your school to help low-income students navigate and graduate college?
  • Compare how much debt low-income students take on compared to the rest of the school. Some schools are able to better assist low-income students so that they don’t have to graduate with a lot of debt. Low-income students at Vassar College, for example, graduate with $9,547 of debt, compared to the overall school average of $17,545. How much debt do low-income students graduate with at your school?
  • And then, again, interview students and graduates! Once you have the numbers, interview graduates of your university about their debt load. Ask them about their financial aid process, as well as their experience repaying their loans after graduation.

2. Not All State Schools Are Equal

If you attend a public university, look at how students at your school fare compared to those at other state colleges. State schools were created to be the most affordable option for local students, regardless of their economic background. However, ProPublica found that over the past two decades, public universities have gradually decreased the percentage of institutional aid given to low-income students while increasing the amount given to wealthier students. For poor students, the diminishing amount of aid has become a substantial barrier to entry.

  • Is this happening at your school or at other state colleges?
  • What kind of discounts does your school give compared to schools across the state?
  • How much debt do students at your school graduate with on average compared to the state average?
  • If your school has two different state education systems (for example, California has both the University of California and the California State University systems), how do they compare?
  • Which school system is better for low-income students?

In Debt by Degrees, we’ve organized the schools by state to help you make these comparisons. Simply search by state and sort the colleges by type to find all the public state schools.

How to report on this:

  • Look at which schools have the highest number of low-income students. Find the schools that accept the most Pell grant recipients, and those that accept the least. What does each group of schools have in common? Do urban schools have a different student body mix than rural schools?
  • How does your school’s tuition compare to other state schools? Which state college is the most expensive? Once you have identified the schools, find out why there is a cost difference between the two schools. Call the press officers for the schools and ask them why their tuition is higher or lower than their peers’.
  • Find out which schools’ graduates are struggling to pay off their loans. The non-repayment rate represents the percentage of student loan borrowers who are struggling to pay off their loans and haven’t been able to pay even $1 off their original loan amounts. For example, in New York, 33.3 percent of student borrowers from the College of Staten Island CUNY are having trouble repaying their loans, compared with 9.3 percent of former students from SUNY College of Geneseo.

3. The Plight of College Dropouts: Debt, But No Degree

More than 40 percent of students at four-year colleges drop out before graduation. For students with loans, they are left with a pile of debt and no degree to show for it. Students who drop out of school also have more trouble finding work, earn less on average and are more likely to default on their loans.

The new government data reveals for the first time how much debt college dropouts take on. For example, Cornell graduates 93.3 percent of their students, but the students who don’t graduate within six years end up with $9,496 of debt on average. At Central Texas College, a two-year community college, the figure is $4,750.

How to report on this:

  • How much debt do dropouts take on at your school? In Debt by Degrees, you can look up the average debt held by dropouts from your school. Even small amounts of debt can become a large burden for dropouts, who have no degree and are the most at risk for default.
  • Find students who dropped out of your university and interview them about why they didn’t graduate. Does your school help struggling students? The most common reason students drop out is they are unable to balance work and school. Find out if your school has programs to help working students. How does your school assist students who need to take a break before finishing their education? What strategies does your school have to increase their overall graduation rate and also the rate of low-income students?

4. Graduates Can’t Pay Off Their Loans

Until the most recent data release, the only available data on how well students do at repaying their loans was the “cohort default rate,” or what percentage of students fail to pay back their loans. The Department of Education uses this rate to regulate schools: If a college’s default rate is above 30 percent for the three most recent years, the school may lose its eligibility for federal aid.

The latest data release, however, allowed ProPublica to publish the “non-repayment rate,” or what percent of students can’t even pay back $1 of their original loan principal. We have data on all students, and you can look at repayment rates for just low-income students as well. Non-repayment rates are a more reliable indicator of trouble than default rates, which are susceptible to manipulation.

How to report on this:

  • How well are students able to repay their loans at your school? What percentage of students default on their loans within three years?Compare this with the percentage of students who are struggling to repay their loans.
  • Interview former students about their loan repayment experience. Did the school offer them any guidance on how to repay their loans? What are their monthly payments? Who is their loan servicer? How long do they expect it will take them to repay their loans?
  • Ask school administrators about the school’s non-repayment rate. What are they doing to help students pay back their loans? How is your school financially preparing students for after graduation?

5. Some Alumni Don’t Earn More Than High School Graduates

The government has also released data on how much alumni are earning at each school, but it’s not broken down by school program, so this data can be difficult to analyze. It’s not fair to compare the earnings of a tech school to a liberal arts school, for example, as their distribution of majors will differ substantially.

However, one of the figures on earnings remains valuable: “threshold earnings,” or the percentage of students earning less than $25,000 a decade after entering school. This rate indicates how many students are earning the same amount or less than what they would have expected to earn with only a high school degree.

How to report on this:

  • For most schools, the percentage of students earning less than $25,000 a year will be quite low. However, if you are at a school where this number is very high (greater than 50 percent), this is something to focus on. How is your school ensuring that their educational program will improve students’ future opportunities?
  • Perhaps your school’s graduates seem to do fine, but what about the schools in your community or your city? Look into whether there are educational programs near you that are potentially exploiting their students. Interview students about their expectations for post-graduate earnings. Find out if the school advertised high earnings that contradict the data. Approach the school and ask why so many graduates are earning so little money.

Some Extra Tips:

  • Remember, the data is just the starting point. Talk to students, teachers, administrators and experts about what you’re seeing in the numbers and get as much context as possible for your readers.
  • When comparing your school to other schools, make sure you’re making apples-to-apples comparisons. If your school is a two-year public community college, don’t compare your school to a four-year private research university. In Debt by Degrees, we always separate these schools so you are only comparing schools in the same category.
  • For the poorest of students, even a small amount of debt can be a large burden. Even small debts can severely limit the post-graduation opportunities of students, particularly those without a financial safety net. Think about debt numbers as a percentage of a low family income, such as $25,000. Leaving school with $25,000 in loans is 100 percent of how much that student’s entire family earns over an entire year.
  • The government data on student debt and earnings only accounts for students receiving federal aid. If students do not receive federal grants or loans, they are not included in these figures.
  • Similarly, the newly released government data only tells the story of federal loans. For some students, federal student aid (which includes student loans, parent loans, grants, and work study programs) is not enough to pay for the full cost of going to college. Some rely on outside sources to help pay the bills, such as turning to parents to take out loans, or taking on private bank loans themselves. But these figures are quite low: about 4.5 percent of parents take on federal loans and only 6 percent of students take out private loans.

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